Stone Tools That are 1.4 Million Years Old Mark the Migration of Ancient Humans in Europe

Posted on Categories Discover Magazine

Researchers have spent years grappling with the uncertain details of archaic humans’ first entry into Europe, but stone tools created about 1.4 million years ago may offer important insight.

The tools were discovered at the Korolevo archaeological site near Ukraine’s border with Romania, and have now considered the oldest known artifacts in Europe made by ancient humans. A team of archaeologists recently dated the tools and published their findings in Nature, delivering progress on critical questions about ancient human migration. 

The age of the tools supports the theory that our ancestors — possibly Homo erectus, an archaic human believed to have gone extinct at least 117,000 years ago — journeyed into Europe from the east and continued to spread west. 

“Until now, there was no strong evidence for an east-to-west migration,” said Roman Garba, an archaeologist at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague and co-lead author of the Nature paper, in Nature News.

Dating the Tools

The team used a dating method based on cosmogenic nuclides to determine the date of the tools from the Korolevo site. Cosmogenic nuclides are rare isotopes created when high-energy cosmic rays interact with chemical elements in minerals on Earth’s surface.

The team observed the ratio of specific cosmogenic nuclides in the sediment layer where the tools were buried, concluding that the tools were an estimated 1.4 million years old. 

Previously, the earliest dated evidence of archaic humans in Europe were fossils and stone tools discovered at caves in Spain and France. Both sets of evidence — featured in two prior studies — are 1.1 million to 1.2 million years old. 

The Tools of Homo Erectus

Researchers suggest the tools might have belonged to Homo erectus; the Korolevo tools contain similarities to other tools discovered at sites in the Caucasus Mountains dated to around 1.8 million years ago — most notably at Dmanisi in Georgia, where numerous fossils classified as remnants of H. erectus have been found.

Although the dating appears to validate the westward movement of H. erectus into Europe, it is not certain that the hominin species made the tools as there were no human remains found at Korolevo. 

Korolevo stands at a vital junction in archaeological history; older sites have been discovered further toward Asia, while younger sites occupy southwestern Europe. Various sites that precede Korolevo in age have shown the initial dispersal of early humans based on the presence of Oldowan tools, the earliest stone tool industry. Researchers have found 2.1 million-year-old tools in China, 2.4 million-year-old tools in North Africa, and nearly 2.5 million-year-old tools in Jordan.

The recent findings ultimately lend credence to the idea that the first humans to inhabit Europe entered from the east and potentially advanced through the valleys of the Danube River.

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